Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Text of Statement by CSCR on Open Review of Lab Grants

Here is the statement by the California Stem Cell Report at the Oct. 23, 2007, meeting of the Grants Working Group of the California stem cell agency.
By way of introduction, my name is David Jensen and I publish the California Stem Cell Report on the Internet. I have followed the affairs of the California stem cell agency since December 2005 and have published nearly 1,400 items involving CIRM.

First, I want to express my appreciation for the work you are doing here today and tomorrow, especially to those of you from out-of-state. Spending two days in a hotel reviewing complex grant proposals – taking time away from your own work and families – is not a minor matter. Thank you.

My main point today involves the openness and transparency of the proceedings of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, an agency unlike any state department in California history. As a result of the enactment of Proposition 71, CIRM operates outside of much of the normal state government oversight and is virtually independent of the governor and legislature. At the same time, it is overseen by a board that includes employees of institutions that stand to benefit financially from the CIRM actions. In the case of the upcoming round of $222 million for lab construction, 17 of the 27 current members of the Oversight Committee could see their connected institutions benefit from a facilities grants.

Currently, review of applications from individual researchers is conducted behind closed doors. CIRM has decided to keep the discussions private in order to encourage maximum candor and frankness about the work of individuals, which would be discouraged if the reviews were conducted in a public.

However, applications for the major lab grants – which you will be reviewing in the not-too-distant future – are much different than those from the men and women who direct stem cell research labs. The applications for lab construction funds will come from huge institutions such as the University of California and other major educational and research enterprises. Their names and applications should be part of the public record. And your review of those applications for $222 million in public funds should be conducted in public.

It is hard to see a justification for a closed-door review of a lab grant application, for example, from UC Berkeley. In fact, the review of the lab grants will become public – but only after your group performs the most critical segment of the review. And that is where the public's interest is the greatest. One can argue that individual researchers and their applications should be discussed behind closed doors to avoid embarrassment and to encourage frankness. But that hardly applies in the case of an institution such as Berkeley, which regularly comes under the harshest form of public criticism with nary a flesh wound inflicted. Equating the sensitivities of UC Berkeley or other likely institutional applicants for lab grants to the sensitivities of an individual researcher would seem to defy common sense.

The California stem cell agency has a special public trust. One of its missions is to encourage public support and understanding of human embryonic stem cell research. And it should not hand the foes of good science additional weapons that can be used to attack such research. Conducting grant reviews unnecessarily behind closed doors only feeds suspicion and the worst sort of speculation. Openness and transparency inspire public confidence and make it clear to all that no mischief is afoot.

I urge you to consider making an informal expression of sentiment to CIRM and the Oversight Committee in favor of publicly identifying applicants, publicly releasing their applications and conducting the scientific review of the lab proposals in public. If there are segments of the applications that must be examined in private, that can easily be done in an executive session, just as the Oversight Committee does when it considers applications after your work is done.

Opening the doors on the lab grant review would reflect well on the agency and be an important step in fulfilling CIRM's promise of adherence to the highest standards of openness and transparency. Thank you.
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